Fifty years ago today — December 3, 1968 — NBC aired Singer Presents … Elvis.
At that point, Elvis Presley was generally considered a joke, a has-been. His pioneering rock and roll days were long behind him, his singing and acting career and earning potential shriveled by a stultifying run of half-baked movies (Girl Happy, Harum Scarum, Clambake) and equally awful soundtracks (featuring horrid novelty songs like “There’s No Room to Rhumba in a Sports Car” and “He’s Your Uncle, Not Your Dad”). Presley’s manager “Colonel” Tom Parker was pushing for a holiday special where Elvis would cavort with nominally famous guest stars and sing … wait for it … twenty Christmas carols.
But Singer’s execs had something else in mind: a show centered entirely on Presley, reminding the audience of his initial, explosive impact on pop music and propelling him forward, into a fresh phase of his career. Elvis bought in, the Colonel signed off, and Steve Binder (director of the spectacular 1964 concert movie The T.A.M.I Show, featuring The Supremes, The Beach Boys, James Brown and The Rolling Stones in thrilling live performances) signed on. Which is why, on that night fifty years ago, as 42 percent of the US television audience tuned in, they locked eyes with a man on a mission:
No room to rhumba in a sports car, indeed. Yes, the production values were high-gloss — but there was more than just glitz on display. There was Elvis Presley: involved and committed as he hadn’t been in years; wearing black leather from head to toe for most of the show; singing with his whole heart and gyrating with his whole body like his life depended on it, through “stand up” shows backed by a full band and orchestra …
… as well as informal “sit down” shows, joined by his original combo and his Memphis Mafia, playing sharp, lowdown rhythm guitar while he sang … MTV Unplugged 20 years before its time!
He even squeezed in a Christmas song (cheered on by cries of “play it dirty”?) …
… and by the time the special closed with a live take of the brand new “If I Can Dream” (riffing on the recently assassinated Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy’s most inspirational moments), America knew the King of Rock and Roll had reclaimed his throne.
True, Elvis’ great comeback didn’t last — but while it did, he soared. Released before the show aired, both the studio version of “If I Can Dream” and the special’s soundtrack album hit the Top 20 and went gold. Singer Presents … Elvis was the most-watched show of the entire 1968-69 television season. Presley then made, arguably, the single best album of his career (1969’s incandescent, soulful From Elvis in Memphis — in my view, the equal of his blistering Sun Records sessions) and the brilliant, dramatic Number One single “Suspicious Minds”. Later in 1969, he drew over 100,000 to his initial month-long engagement in Las Vegas. Above all, Presley proved that, in the interlude between Sgt. Pepper and Woodstock, roots-based rock and roll (“basically gospel and rhythm & blues,” in his unscripted words) still had room to run — and so did he. Even his later, agonizing slide into perfunctory enormodome shows, a desperately dysfunctional personal life and the unbridled drug abuse that killed him couldn’t negate what he’d accomplished in that brief, shining moment.
Of course, RCA Legacy has a spiffy new super-deluxe box out now (5 CDs and 2 BluRays), containing every single note recorded and filmed for what’s now known as “the ’68 Comeback Special”, as well as a double LP excerpted from the “sit down” shows, The King in the Ring. (Details here.) But really, you don’t need to spend big bucks to revel in how Elvis got his mojo back on national TV. The official Elvis Presley YouTube channel now hosts most of the special (except for the gospel medley) in HD video, with extra outtakes. Or, just listen below — it’s all there in the music.
— Rick Krueger